The Jewish Report Editorial

What’s in a picture?

The “security cluster” in this country should be embarrassed at how they have bungled the issue of material about President Jacob Zuma’s private homestead Nkandla getting out
by Jewish Report | Dec 01, 2013

It goes without saying that any country must protect itself from enemies, that there are critical points that must be guarded. For example, when the 9/11 attacks happened in the United States, the security service immediately acted to secure the head of state responsible for making critical decisions - President George W Bush, in that case.

The “security cluster” in this country should be embarrassed, however, at how they have bungled the issue of material about President Jacob Zuma’s private homestead Nkandla getting out, using the notion of key points to prevent it. How can a photo endanger the life of the president? In the US you can go on a tour of the White House, or a virtual tour via Google.

When on Tuesday a hoax report surfaced that the security apparatus had issued a warrant of arrest against City Press editor Ferial Haffajee, for publishing a photograph of Nkandla, it is indicative of the situation in the country that so many people were taken in. It felt awfully similar to life under apartheid with its absurdities. There was a sense of resignation. Later, Haffajee used Twitter to refute the hoax.

What kind of reality is the security cluster living in? South Africa wants to present an image to the world of a liberal, democratic country, espousing First World values, where the right to information and freedom of speech is enshrined in its Constitution.

What does this aggressive, ham-handed police action do to our image? Or to investors, who might be thinking about putting their money here?

We also live in the age of the Internet and social media. No matter how hard they try, they cannot suppress such material. If they attempt to stifle it here, it will pop up in Norway or anywhere else on the planet connected to the Internet. They are floundering, probably from embarrassment about rampant spending - a figure of R208 million is now touted - on a “private” homestead for one individual.

The more they paint themselves into a corner, the more we look like a caricature. Once we become that on the world stage, it is incredibly hard to restore our dignity.

Today at least we have the Constitution, which we didn’t during apartheid - a good Constitution, with all legislation subservient to it. And, thankfully, it seems that most of our Concourt justices are nobody’s lackeys.

The awful irony is that this is déjà vu: we have heard it all before during apartheid. The censoring of newspapers and the understated threat: “You’d better toe the line”... hoping the media will engage in self-censorship so as not to get into trouble – and obviously not embarrass state structures or politicians.

What is the condition of our media today? Will they capitulate? We think not. There were courageous newspapers during apartheid, and there will be now. The hoax about Haffajee’s arrest warrant came amidst the furore over the controversial Protection of Information Bill, which has put people on edge, and which will obviously put more constraints on what papers are allowed to publish.

The Jewish Report does not operate in a vacuum. It is part of the family of South African newspapers. We understand there is no such thing as unbridled freedom, and we believe in responsible reporting, in our own community niche and the broader society - to report in fairness and balance, to be credible and accurate with our facts, and to act as a fearless watchdog.

However, we are South Africans and must voice our concerns about what is happening in the country. We must not capitulate on our hard-won freedoms. We can’t just sit back and watch the train smash.

Where are the intelligent people with integrity in the inner power circles of government? What about old activists who fought apartheid and know what kind of things can get hidden when a government suppresses information? Surely they can speak out? Public Protector Thuli Madonsela is an inspiring example of what others should be doing.

What is happening is a sad day in South African politics, whichever way you look at it. And it is affecting each and every life in this country. It will take a long time to win back the dignity we had under Nelson Mandela. We were the darling of the world. Alas, no longer.



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